Indigenous people are extremely important to the cultural and ethnic mix of Malaysian life. There are over 64 different groups of indigenous people in the country. Malaysia represents a tolerant society which respects the right of its people to practise any of the religions found there, i.e. Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. In this respect, Malaysia has been successful in bringing together people from diverse cultures, countries and background to create a unified society.
Indigenous people form an integral part of Malaysian society and contribute greatly to the cultural richness of the country. The ethnic groups are quite diverse, speaking their own languages and practicing their own religions. However, these ethnic groups can remain locked in their own respective ethnic universe, isolated from the rest of society unless these differences are mitigated through infrastructure and development.
Today, indigenous people hold sway in the government and senior public positions. Government reforms have helped overcome ethnic divisions and aim to provide indigenous people with the same opportunities as other members of Malaysian society.
Government policy has focused on concerted developments in rural areas. Housing, schools and healthcare facilities are built close to the villages of indigenous people so they are not forced to move to urban areas. As a result of these developments, mortality rates have dropped and poverty is being alleviated. Perhaps most important of all is the fact that through education, indigenous people are taking greater control of their lives. Many have grasped the opportunities afforded by education and, at the same time, respect and follow the culture of their villages, proving that modern life can be compatible with traditional ways.
In Sarawak there are 26 different ethnic groups making up 70% of the state’s 1.7 million inhabitants. The total land area of Sarawak is 12.3m hectares which is roughly 2.3 times the size of Holland. Virtually all of the ethnic people of Sarawak live off the land. They farm, fish, hunt and many of them practice shifting cultivation.
Indigenous people in Sabah accounts for 86.3% of the total Sabah population of 1.6 million. The vast majority of indigenous communities live in rural area and include ethnic groups such as the Kadazan, Bajau, Suluk and Cocos Malay. As in Sarawak, almost all of these people live off the land.
The Penans live in Sarawak. They make up just one of its 26 ethnic group. In total there are 10,000 Penans spread over 87 villages. The State Government of Sarawak has spent more than RM 15 million over the past few years to improve the livelihood of the Penans through short-term and long-term development programmes. The amount is substantial considering the small population of the community.
Professionals, including anthropologists and sociologists, in consultation with the Penans have drawn up these programmes to ensure that they are not left behind as the country move ahead towards achieving a newly industrialised country status in the year 2020. Short term programmes drawn up are intended to provide the Penans with basic need such as medicine, clothing’s, building materials and agriculture tools while long-term programmes are drawn up to bring the community to the mainstream of society.
Recently, the Sarawak Government reported that the state Government’s effort in getting the Penan community to lead a settled life and interact with other races in the country have met with much success. The Penans are now much aware of the goings-on surrounding them, parents are more willing to send their children to schools, clinics are well patronised and the infant mortality rate has dropped significantly.
Many Penans have adapted well to modern living and quite a number of them now work in government sector, as government servants, tourist guides and truck drivers. The government is currently working out new strategies to further develop the Penans into a thriving community.
Of the entire Penan population, about 400 of them are nomadic. 65,700 hectares of primary forests have been specially set aside for them so that they can continue to follow their nomadic lifestyles. This includes the Mulu National park (52,900 ha), Sungai Magoh (5,600 ha), Ulu Sungai Tutoh (2,200 ha) and Sungai Adang (5,000 ha).
For Penans who have settled in longhouses, but wish to pursue their traditions, the government has set aside Melana Protected Forest (22,000 ha) and an area in Ulu Seridan (1,400 ha). The places listed are not the only places where the Penans can practice their traditional way of life for they could also do so in the existing forest areas where they live as provided by Section 65 of the State Forest ordinance.
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